Signs and Symptoms of Arthritis

Arthritis is one of the most common causes of joint pain. There are many types of arthritis, but most will start with similar symptoms. These symptoms can worsen over time, and while there are steps that you can take to prevent the progression of arthritis, you have to know that it's arthritis that is causing your pain. Keep an eye out for the early signs of arthritis, and let your doctor know if you think you may be developing symptoms of arthritis.


Joint Pain

Woman rubbing shoulder in pain

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The most common symptom of arthritis is joint pain, and this is the reason most people seek medical care for their arthritis. The type of pain can vary depending on the type of arthritis and the severity of the condition. Most people who have arthritis describe an aching pain in the joint that is worsened by activity and relieved by rest. The amount of joint pain usually corresponds to the amount of activity. Other common symptoms that people may describe include worsening of pain with activity, worsening mood, and changes in weather.


Joint Swelling

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Swelling of a joint can occur in many conditions, but the most common cause of joint swelling is arthritis. The second most common cause of swelling is an injury to the joint. So if no injury has occurred, it is likely that the swelling is due to arthritis. Blood tests may help determine the cause.

In some cases of a swollen joint, a sample of joint fluid is obtained by inserting a needle into the swollen joint. This is analyzed in the laboratory to help determine whether the cause is arthritis, gout, or infection.


Stiffness of Joints

older man holding his hand in pain
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People who have arthritis almost always feel stiffness in their joints. You can check your joint motion by comparing it to the joint on the opposite side. Stiffness is usually worse in the morning or after long periods of sitting in one position. As the joint moves with activity, it usually loosens a bit. Other ways to loosen a stiff joint are with heat application and anti-inflammatory medications.


Deformity of Joints

person holding hand in pain
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As joint cartilage is worn away by arthritis, the extremity may take on a deformed appearance. Just as if the tread is worn off your car tires, if enough joint cartilage is worn away, the joint may take on an angled appearance. This is often seen in the hands as crooked fingers. In the knee joint, people with arthritis may develop a knock-kneed or bow-legged appearance.


Grinding Sensations

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As joint cartilage is worn away, the smooth lining covering the rough bone is lost. When the bone is exposed, the joint may not move smoothly. You may feel or even hear a grinding sensation. Place your hand on the joint as you bend back and forth and feel for a grinding sensation of the joint.


Lumps and Bumps Around Joints

knobby arthritic knuckles
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Arthritis can cause the formation of pockets of fluid (mucous cysts) or bone spurs. These are felt as knobby protuberances around the joint. They may or may not be sensitive to the touch, but they do give a lumpy appearance to the joint. Most people notice these on the small joints of the fingers, although they can occur throughout the body.


Joint Tenderness

man gripping his shoulder
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Joints that are arthritic are tender to the touch. If one side of the joint is more involved with arthritis than the other, the worse side is usually more tender. Pressing around the joint and having an elicit pain is a reasonable indication that the joint is inflamed, and that it may have underlying arthritis.


Warm/Red Joints

joint pain highlighted on man's elbow
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Joint inflammation can lead to symptoms of joint redness and warmth. These symptoms should be evaluated by your doctor because they can also be suggestive of a joint infection. However, it is not uncommon for the inflammation associated with arthritis to lead to redness and warmth of the joint.

A Word From Verywell

If you find that you are limiting your activities or unhappy managing your symptoms of arthritis, you should consult with a doctor. Seeing an orthopedic surgeon does not mean you will have surgery--in fact, the vast majority of patients who see an orthopedic surgeon don't need surgery for treatment. Your orthopedist can help guide you on the best treatments available for your arthritic symptoms.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Joint Pain and Arthritis. Updated September 19, 2018.

  2. Merck Manual Professional Version. Pain in and Around a Single Joint. Updated September 2019.

  3. National Institutes of Health. Aging: Arthritis. Updated March 16, 2015.

  4. Kim EJ, Huh JW, Park HJ. Digital Mucous Cyst: A Clinical-Surgical StudyAnn Dermatol. 2017;29(1):69–73. doi:10.5021/ad.2017.29.1.69

  5. Arthritis Foundation. Inflammation and Stiffness: The Hallmarks of Arthritis.